Near the end of the 19th century, a dashing Indian made an indelible mark on the future of Hinduism, opening new frontiers to the religion and spreading deeper knowledge of his native culture to the United States and Britain. Swami Vivekananda, born to an upper-caste family on January 12, 1863 in Kolkata, influenced the future of his nation and his faith through stirring oratory and an uncommon commitment to tolerance in his short life.
Given the name Narendrananath Dutta by his parents, Vivekananda received much of his religious fervor from his mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi. Following her lead and that of his grandfather, a Hindu monk, Vivekananda immersed himself in the particulars of meditation. Borrowing the rational qualities of his attorney father, Vishwanath Datta, he studied numerous subjects as a child, looking upon his diverse interests — from history to asceticism — with an analytical eye. Searching for truth in everything he encountered, Vivekananda often wondered aloud about the usefulness of blind discrimination based on tradition alone.
At the age of 16, still known by his birth name Narendra, he entered Presidency College and focused his energies on Western philosophy. Known for a near-perfect memory, the young Vivekananda pored over texts from Europe and his native Bengal to distill the ideas into a unified, satisfying theory. It didn’t work.
While attending the General Assembly Institution in pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts, Vivekananda connected with the teacher who would change his life. Encouraged to visit Ramakrishna Paramahamsa by a professor, he joined a handful of fellow students in making the short trip to the guru’s Dakshineswar Kali Temple. Initially resistant to the guru’s teachings, Vivekananda soon found himself intrigued by Ramakrishna’s patient answers to his incredulous questions.
As the years passed, the young man from Kolkata became enmeshed in his teacher’s lessons. At Ramakrishna’s death in 1886, Vivekananda would be among the first group of monks to carry on the guru’s legacy. Months later, he took formal vows at Barangar Math and became known to others as Swami Bibidishananda. (“Vivekananda” would come later, from the Maharaja of Khetri.)
The whole of India would be his home for the next five years. Traveling from Bengal in the northeast to the west and south, Vivekananda came into contact with the rich diversity of his homeland. In moving from one location to the next carrying just two books, a water pot and a walking staff, he gained an appreciation for the severe conditions many of his countrymen experienced. Connecting with scholars from his own and other traditions along the way, his understanding of different traditions expanded greatly, shaping his later view that all faiths pointed toward the same god and service to others should be the primary form of worship.
Encouraged to visit the Parliament of Religions going on in Chicago during the summer of 1893, Vivekananda methodically made his way through other countries — Japan, China and Canada — before landing in the US. Despite finding the list of delegates already finalized, he managed to secure a personal recommendation from Harvard professor John Henry Wright for a spot at the conference as a representative of both his country and his religion.
Vivekananda grabbed hold of the moment and made the most of it, delivering a brief, inspiring speech that brought the crowd to its feet. A media darling, the “Cyclonic monk from India” spent the next four years talking to audiences all over the US and England, introducing them to 2,500-year-old Vedanta teachings and the disciplines of Yoga.
Returning to Kolkata in 1897, the ideals of social service became Vivekananda’s focus. Thoughts on independence crept into his writing while away, but many of his letters and speeches turned around the principle of a progressive India. He felt strongly the future of his beloved homeland could be secured through modernization — particularly abolishing the caste system and integrating newer technology — and sovereignty. Spread throughout the countryside in the book Lectures from Colombo to Almora, Vivekananda’s concepts greatly influenced leaders in the generation to come like Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose.
In failing health at the end of the 1890s, even though only in his late thirties, Vivekananda continued to argue for the universal truth in all religions. By the sheer force of his personality, he managed to introduce Hinduism to the West on a large scale and create a philosophical legacy to help unify India against colonialism. More than four decades after his death, the first governor of the newly-sovereign nation, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, honored him with the assertion “Vivekananda saved Hinduism, saved India.”
To commemorate his service to the nation and uplifting message, the Indian government declared his birthday “National Youth Day” in 1985.
Also On This Day:
1539 – The Treaty of Toledo brings peace between the armies of France and the Holy Roman Empire
1908 – The Eiffel Tower serves as a radio transmitter for the first time
1964 – Rebels launch the Zanzibar Revolution, overthrowing the Sultan
1967 – Dr. James Bedford is cryonically preserved, the first person to be suspended for the sake of waking up in the future
1998 – Human cloning is forbidden in 19 European nations
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